WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? – Bristol Tobacco Factory


25 February 2020

No one mounts a production of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ without first taking a very deep breath. It is a modern monster of a piece. Now, nearly 60 years old, it is, as director David Mercatali says in his programme note, still ‘edgy with a wicked sense of humour’. Listening to Albee’s dialogue, you wonder from where he was able to dream up such pith, such viciousness and such depth. It is a craftsman at the top of his game; no longueurs in this long script; just lulls between the explosions. 

For three hours the audience observe the disintegration of humans as masks are removed and safety nets are withdrawn; the trappings used to maintain relationships and self-esteem. Through insults disguised as banter, George and Martha joust with one another as unwitting witnesses, Nick and Honey, become collateral damage as the jousting becomes a bloodbath. As insecure as they are the older married couple sustain their relationship through lies and deceit, fuelled by drink which is the comfort blanket of survival for them. It is a tough watch.

Presented in-the-round; the simple, unfussy setting becomes the cauldron in which matters simmer, bubble and boil over. Lighting appeared to be the same throughout with no real sense of the passage of time from early hours to dawn. There also appeared to be a soundscape, though it was so faint that I wondered if it was coming from elsewhere in the building; it had no effect on the production at all and was almost irritating.

The play follows a huge arc with peaks and troughs within it. This presents enormous challenges for actors and director. The reliance on alcohol within the story means the characters progress from initial intoxication to the point, as mentioned by Nick, ‘after a while you don’t get any drunker, do you?’. This is enormously difficult to achieve and during Act One, the progressive drunkenness didn’t come off and throughout the rest of the performance it was inconsistent. As I say, it is not easy, but there was the feeling that occasionally the actor’s minds were jogged into ‘acting drunk’.

At the heart of the play is the relationship between Martha and George – a love story? Most likely yes, but the battle between them is one which is only equalised by the end. Mark Meadows is a very fine George; lurching between easy quip and casual insult, it is a lucid and entirely believable character. Battling against him is the Martha of Pooky Quesnel who delivers her barbs with acidity, but was forever too much in the shadow of Meadows; despite the barrage of abuse he suffers. This imbalance affected the ultimate sympathies which you should feel by the end; an end which I felt could have been imbued with more tenderness, more compassion, and more time. Sadly, I felt nothing for either of them.

Joseph Tweedale, as Nick, was successful in his journey from wide-eyed innocence to the horrors of realisation by way of humiliation and fornication. Francesca Henry’s Honey perfectly captured the vulnerability of a young woman entirely out of her depth and repulsed by herself and the situation she finds herself in.

David Mercatali directs with care and precision, enabling the full auditorium to witness every twist and turn from every angle, but maybe he is a little restrained with the actual action. I felt that the lid was too tight on the boiling pot, and it needed to be loosened somewhat.

That all being said there is only admiration for the cast performing at such close quarters and never blinking or turning a hair for so long. They worked their socks off and provided much to admire in this production. A few sparks too few left me wanting some more fireworks which might have brought about the emotional climax that should have been.











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